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Bible - Interpretation

What does Paul mean by 'rightly dividing the Word of truth'?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Despite what many teach today, the words in the Greek do not mean "to divide the Bible into sections".

We've been asked this question numerous times. One of the occasions on which I've answered it was during a sermon on the book of Zechariah. Below is an excerpt from that message.

Zechariah is a very Messiah-centered or Christ-centered book, and the over-arching theme of the book is embodied in the name of the prophet Zechariah. That name means, "The Lord remembers." God never forgets His promises, and that is the theme of the book.

As we begin our overview of the book of Zechariah this evening, I want to bring to your attention the key to interpreting the book. How you interpret this book - in fact, how you interpret the entire Bible in the Evangelical church today - depends on how you view a particular New Testament passage. That passage is a familiar one, 2nd Timothy 2:15. It says, "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth."

I want to focus your attention for a moment on that last phrase, "rightly dividing the Word of truth." That's the way the phrase is translated in most Bibles. A few translations have it as "rightly handling" or "correctly handling" the Word of truth. There are two views of this particular phrase, and I'm going to use shorthand names for them for the sake of time.

Two Views of "Rightly Dividing"

One is the dispensationalist view. That view says that "rightly dividing" means, literally, dividing up God's Word - dividing up as in "cutting up." Let me quote a dispensationalist spokesman who comments on this verse:

The Bible student is to very carefully cut and divide the Word of God in order to understand it aright. As an illustration of this, consider the dissection of the human body... In much the same way, when we study God's Word we must carefully cut and dissect the Word of truth... May the God of truth enable us to carefully and rightly dissect His precious Word...

The result of this view is that many dispensationalists teach a division between what they see as the Jewish portions and the Church portions of the Word of God. And on that basis, classic dispensationalism postulates separate programs for Israel and the Gentile church, extending out into eternity - one group of people in the New Heaven, the other group of people on the New Earth. There is some degree of disagreement among dispensationalists about which group will be where for eternity. And there is also significant disagreement among them about where to "cut and divide" the Bible between Jewish parts and Church parts, and there is significant disagreement among them about the number of dispensations, where they begin and end, whether or not they overlap, and so on.

Over against this view is what I will call, for the sake of shorthand, the covenant theology view. Now, I want to make it clear that I do not agree with all covenant theologians, because there are differences of opinion among them, too. I mainly disagree with those who see a total transference of Old Testament prophecies and promises from the nation of Israel to the New Testament church, and no future at all in God's plans for ethnic Israel. I don't believe you can read the book of Zechariah, especially in the light of Romans chapters nine through eleven, to support that view.

But that issue aside, the covenant theology view in general says that "rightly dividing" in 2nd Timothy 2:15 simply means "accurately teaching" God's Word. As a result, in contrast to the dispensationalist view, what I'm calling the covenant theology view teaches that there is one program of God, encompassing both Jew and Gentile, beginning before the foundation of the world and extending out into eternity - and that we will all be together in the New Heavens and New Earth. And it says that God's plan is manifested in two covenants, which Scripture calls the Old and the New, within the over-arching framework of one unified plan of redemption. That part of the covenant theology view, the main force of it, I most heartily agree with.

Which Does Scripture Support?

Now these are two polar opposite points of view. One says that "rightly dividing" means "cutting up" and the other says it means "accurately teaching" a unified whole. The question is, which one does Scripture support? And the answer to that question is a key not only to how you interpret the book of Zechariah. It is a key to how you interpret all the prophetic books and passages throughout the Bible - indeed, how you interpret the entire Word of God.

The key to evaluating the two views is to look at the original language of 2nd Timothy 2:15. And this is what we find. The word that is translated "rightly dividing" in the Old and New King James versions, and in several others, is a single word in the Greek. It is a form of the Greek verb orthotomeo. This is a very interesting word.

In New Testament times, orthotomeo was primarily a civil engineering term. It was used, for example, as a road building term. The idea of the word was to cut straight, or to guide on a straight path. The idea is to cut a roadway in a straight manner, so that people who will travel over that road can arrive at their destination directly, without deviation. Orthotomeo was also used as a mining term. It meant to drill a straight mine shaft so that the miners can get quickly and safely to the "mother lode."

There is another word in Greek, katatomeo, which means "to cut into sections." But that is not the word that the Apostle Paul, under divine inspiration, uses here in 2nd Timothy 2:15. Paul is not talking about "rightly dividing" in terms of dissecting the Word of God, or cutting it into sections based on Jew and Gentile, or Israel and Church, or any other criterion. It's interesting that the Apostle Paul does use that other word - katatomeo, cutting up - in Philippians 3:2, where he says, literally, "beware of those who would divide you up" - in other words, beware of those who would try to make a difference among believers between Jews and Gentiles.

So what is the proper meaning of orthotomeo - "rightly dividing" the Word of truth? What is intended is not the dividing of Scripture, not cutting it up, but teaching Scripture accurately, as a single, unified whole, without being turned aside by false teaching or man-made agendas.

Applying the Principle

Now, how does that apply to the book of Zechariah in particular, to Bible prophecy in general, and to the Word of God as a whole? It tells us that faithful practice of orthotomeo in the handling of Scripture demonstrates that God's Word is a glorious whole from beginning to end. It reveals to us one, single, unified and eternal plan of redemption - not two separate, never-the-two-shall-meet plans for Israel and the Church. We dare not employ the theological equivalent of a pathologist's scalpel to carve up God's living Word.

Applying the orthotomeo principle also tells us, in relation to Zechariah and the rest of Bible prophecy, that God is not finished with the people of Israel as a nation - that is, with ethnic Israel. Romans chapters nine through eleven also make that clear. Those chapters are, in fact, both doctrinal and prophetic. The time of Israel's full in-gathering is yet to come, and it is part of His unified plan to call out and redeem a people for Himself from among every tribe, nation, and tongue on earth.

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